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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 2, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 49
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Powerfully bleak Manchester an honest drama of human resilience
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Now playing


When his brother Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) finally succumbs to a rare heart condition, it is up to Lee (Casey Affleck) to take leave from his handyman position in Boston and head up to Manchester to break the news to his 15-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Taking up residence in his deceased sibling's house, what is most shocking to Lee is that in Joe's will he's named to be Patrick's guardian, a position he is not even certain he is emotionally capable of being able to fill.

His reasons go back years, and it is why most in Manchester walk to the other side of the street when they see him coming. It is also why Lee's marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams) came to such a bitter end, the unfathomable pain that confronted them simply too much for either of them to bear. Now, forced to decide what is best for Patrick, the still relatively young man must revisit these past tragedies to see if he can put them behind him and, in healing, become the sort of guardian and father figure Joe believed he could become.

Quiet, unassuming and direct, Kenneth Lonergan's (Margaret, You Can Count on Me) third directorial effort is a startlingly effective melodrama filled with honest insights and even more profound observations. The emotions running through it all are stunning in their purity, events building to a potent, powerfully cathartic denouement that's unafraid to leave some questions unanswered as characters continue to make their way in the world step by unbalanced step. Like life itself, resolutions are hard to come by, and sometimes one tragic mistake is all it takes for uncertainty to reign supreme and depression to grab hold to the point shaking it loose becomes impossible.

Slipping backwards and forwards in time, showing how strong the bond between the two brothers was and how close Lee was to Patrick, Lonergan manages to ground these relationships in an instantly recognizable fashion. He doesn't have to spend long stretches of the narrative spelling things out. It's obvious why Joe believes his brother is up to the challenge. I understood immediately how the connection between uncle and nephew could become frayed. Long before the writer/director reveals what it was that destroyed Lee and Randi's marriage, the deeply rooted pain that both are suffering through still manages to echo loud and clear. There is a clarity here that's continually profound, Lonergan achieving a level of naturalism that's astonishing.

So is Affleck. As incredible as the actor has been in the past, as award-worthy as turns in films as diverse as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Gone Baby Gone, Ain't Them Bodies Saints and this year's The Finest Hours might have been, his lived-in, hypnotically nuanced turn as Lee is something else entirely. Disappearing into the role, there is not a single step that feels false or out of place. He moves between moments and emotions with ease, finding humor in the darkest of memories only to fall into emotional disrepair at the most unexpected of moments. Affleck is extraordinary, the movie owing a great deal of its success to him.

Not to say others do not rise to the occasion. Newcomer Hedges is shockingly good, while Williams is an absolute knockout in a pair of scenes that left me speechless in their catastrophic wake. Veteran character actress Heather Burns (Miss Congeniality) is also superb, her brief scenes as a single mother who goes out of her way to try and catch Lee's attention sparkling in their vivacious, winsome need. Chandler, seen mostly via flashback, is also excellent, while youngster Ben O'Brien makes a vivid impression portraying Patrick as a child.

I can't say a central subplot involving Patrick's estranged mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) did a lot for me, a dinner scene between her, the teenager and her new husband, religious fundamentalist Jeffrey (Matthew Broderick), going over a bit like a lead balloon. Lonergan also hammers home Lee's pariah status a little too often, especially after we learn about what horrors in his past continue to haunt him. I just found it all a little unnecessary, the point being made quite clearly early on so I'm not sure returning to it on multiple occasions was particularly useful.

Not that it matters. Manchester by the Sea is more often than not a stunner, delivering in ways that defy easy description. Lonergan is fearless, going after the human condition in ways that are beyond compare, refusing to soften his points or offer easy outs for any of his characters. This is a movie about life, its ugliness and the destruction a single unintended mistake can exact upon those both guilty and innocent. But he also finds the laughter inside the tragedy, light inside the darkness, offering up a coda of hope and understanding that, while purposefully imperfect, still allows the glimmer of a fresh new dawn to be a possibility worthy of continuing to strive for.


Skillfully coifed Love Witch a magical cyanide cocktail
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE LOVE WITCH
Now playing


Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is determined to find a man she can love. She adores love, so much so she's devoted her study of witchcraft and the occult into achieving it no matter the cost. Problem is, she's spent so much time transforming herself into what she believes is the masculine version of the porcelain doll ideal that she's lost sight of the line that exists between right and wrong. While her spells bring men her way, once she has them, Elaine quickly realizes they aren't all they're cracked up to be, and the only way to make sure they don't keep mindlessly pursuing her is to make certain they're placed a good six-feet underneath the ground where they can't do any harm.

Shot on 35mm, made with retro 1960s Technicolor purity, writer/director Anna Biller's The Love Witch is a feat of technical wizardry, its production design, costumes, art direction and especially cinematography beyond reproach. But it is the cunning intelligence of the script, its dark, complexly feminist mechanics, that make the movie sing. Biller has composed an eviscerating black comedy that pulls zero punches and is completely unafraid of pushing as many buttons as it can, holding a spotlight up to society's assessment of the feminine mystique only to menacingly twist it all right on top of its majestically coifed head.

Is Elaine a villain? Is she a hero? Or is she a victim of society's obsession with beauty and gender stereotypes? There aren't any easy answers, at least, not any that Biller cares to answer. Instead, she offers up scenarios and situations that continually blur the line. Elaine is a serial killer, there's no denying that, but the twisted pains and complicated circumstances that made her that way are hinted at throughout. While the movie never forgives her actions, it does ask the viewer to understand them, creating an uncomfortable sense of mystery where right and wrong no longer apply.

This aura of moral imbalance is centered around Trish (Laura Waddell), a somewhat stereotypical girl-next-door who ends up becoming Elaine's first new friend when she arrives in San Francisco. Like everyone else, she's initially hypnotized by the vibrant, go-getting young woman, slightly embarrassed with how openly she is willing to talk about sex, love and all sorts of matters of the heart. It's easy for her to get swept along for the ride, but when the point comes where Elaine realizes how far the artifice extends and just how terrifically damaged her new girlfriend actually might be, the shock she feels is ruinous. Affection turns to horror, the idea that a fellow woman could damage herself so completely just to a please a man a shock to her system yet, in some ways even more terrifying, it is also an idea she can understand and relate to at the exact same time.

Biller, an old Hollywood aficionado whose love for all things Hitchcock, Sirk, Wilder and all the rest seemingly knows no bounds, has imagined a world that is retro and modern, both seemingly at once, and as such creates a lushly unsettling visual landscape that had me questioning what was going on right from the very beginning of the film. Echoes of Bell, Book and Candle, Arsenic and Old Lace, Marnie, Vertigo, Written on the Wind and even The Vampire Lovers abound, while a brazenly sexual streak reminiscent of The Wicker Man can be felt throbbing throughout. She's littered the movie with bright pinks and comforting blues, every color under the sun popping with a jovial electricity that's positively shocking.

But, much like Elaine herself, her makeup always on point, her hair perfect, her clothes dripping in womanly élan, it's all an act, a bittersweet façade that's been manufactured to excite the gaze and misdirect from the actual central goings on taking place right there in plain sight. Much like Robinson's sublime performance (think Kim Novak by way of Tippi Hedren and Lauren Bacall), the trickery is by design, the brutal nature of why things are the way they frustratingly are the reasons the character turns to homicide in order to find what she believes might be the perfect soul mate.

I really don't want to say more. Biller's movie is a royal, devilishly nasty treat that is as magical as it is potent, the potion the filmmaker has whipped up for all of us to drink going down as smoothly as an expertly mixed cocktail with a tiny pink umbrella, only here the secret ingredient is cyanide, not grenadine. There's nothing like The Love Witch, and that's a good thing, for if there were, I seriously doubt I'd be as captivated with this marvelous bit of murderous whimsy as I most assuredly am.


Intriguing Man Down a heavy-handed disappointment
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MAN DOWN
Now playing


U.S. Marine Gabriel Drummer (Shia LaBeouf) is searching for his son Johnnie (Charlie Shotwell). Alongside best friend and comrade in arms Devin Roberts (Jai Courtney), he is scouring the streets of a post-apocalyptic America, trying to piece together the events that led to this devastation while at the same time mourning his wife Natalie (Kate Mara) whom he believes to be dead. They have no idea what is going on or why things have turned out the way they have, their only real clues hinting at anything approaching answers leading all the way back to the pair's time serving in Afghanistan, Marine psychologist Peyton (Gary Oldman) potentially the key to unlocking the truth.

Dito Montiel is not a subtle filmmaker. From his award-winning 2006 debut, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, to his highly flawed one-two Channing Tatum punch of Fighting and The Son of No One, to his 2014 collaboration with the late, great Robin Williams in Boulevard, the director isn't exactly known for keeping his melodramatic tendencies in check. While showing great skill with actors, he tends to play up the themes he's chasing inside each and every one of his stories to the nth degree, beating the viewer over the head with a sledgehammer as he goes out of his way to make sure all his points are clear.

In this case, he and his co-writer, Adam G. Simon, who also conceived the original story, are looking at what it means to be a soldier fighting in a war where the rules are not clear and the outcomes are constantly in doubt. They are consumed by how separation can affect a family and how brotherhood between those on the front lines can be tested in ways that are beyond unfathomable unless you've been there yourself. In the process, they ask how decisions made in the span of a handful of seconds can have everlasting consequences, changing how both one sees the world and how it, in turn, now views them, all of it coming full circle in the most unforeseen ways.

Problem is, the secrets Montiel and Simon are attempting to keep close to their chest until the last few minutes are clear to any viewer that's even moderately observant, the clues the pair litter throughout their nonlinear structure pointing in a direction that can only mean a scant few things. I had the central conceit pegged long before the reveal, making the final third a close to insufferable bore only made palatable thanks to the commitment from the actors charged with giving all this nonsense some life.

But do they all ever commit, LaBeouf in particular. Say what you will about the actor's off-screen antics, but when he gives himself over completely to a project his ability to vanish inside whatever role he's portraying seems to know few if any boundaries. It happened with Lawless. It happened in Nymphomaniac. It happened in Brad Pitt's WWII tank thriller Fury and it happened earlier this year in Andrea Arnold's extraordinary American Honey. That he does it here as well isn't so much a surprise as it is a saving grace, his unvarnished take on a psyche in cryptic chaos startling in its visceral intensity.

Yet Montiel doesn't always seem to know how to make the most of his actors. He cuts back and forth between time periods and conversations almost as if at random, the director so intent on keeping things in an unhinged mania that he often sends the film down a path of nonsensical gibberish it can't seem to wander off of. The scenes between LaBeouf and Oldman are particularly vexing, revealing far too much even when the dialogue passing between the two seems to say exceedingly little. More, the truths they lead to are heavy-handed and didactic, almost as if Montiel is so consumed with getting his point across he feels the need to spell it all out in bright flashy neon for those too dim to pick up on where it is all headed to.

Still, somewhat surprisingly, Man Down is seldom boring, and I can say it held my attention start to finish with very little in the way of effort. I just wish it all wasn't so painfully obvious, because some of what Montiel and Simon are saying is well worth listening to. But it all ends up being for naught, and by the time the film was over I was almost angry I'd given it a look, the way it wastes an intriguing premise ripe with possibility and fine performances from all involved comes perilously close to being unforgivable.






Pacific Northwest Ballet:

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker is a deep and enriching pleasure

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Treasure Island a terrific and imaginative holiday treat!
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Seven divas from 'Rupaul's Drag Race' invade the Moore Theatre; Latrice Royale steals the show
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Bernadette Peters at Benaroya Hall was truly a night to remember
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Neil Diamond bringing 50th anniversary tour to Key Arena next summer
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The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge celebrates the Christmas spirit
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Dolly Madison to emcee West Seattle Junction Hometown Holidays tree lighting this Saturday, Dec. 3
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Frank Ocean booked for Sasquatch next spring
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Powerfully bleak Manchester an honest drama of human resilience
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Skillfully coifed Love Witch a magical cyanide cocktail
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Intriguing Man Down a heavy-handed disappointment
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